“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
This is not a political post. This is an American post. About an American soldier. An outstanding milblogger who some of you may have followed. Respected and mourned from both sides of the political aisle.
A Babylon 5 fan.
For this Memorial Day, I’d like to bring attention back to a friend of BlackFive’s, Major Andrew Olmsted. He was the first U.S. soldier killed during the Troop Surge, Jan 3, 2008. Shot by a sniper in As-Sadiyah, Iraq, while pleading with 3 insurgents to surrender so that his team wouldn’t have to kill them. Olmsted’s second in command, CPT Tom Casey, tried to save him and was also killed.
The Associated Press, via MilitaryTimes:
37, of Colorado Springs, Colo.; assigned to the Military Transition Team, 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Riley, Kan.; died Jan. 3 in As Sadiyah, Iraq, of wounds sustained when insurgents attacked his unit using small-arms fire during combat operations. Also killed was Capt. Thomas J. Casey
As reported by hilzoy:
I meant to include this comment from one of the men in Andy’s unit, who was with him on his final mission:
“Major Olmsted died while attempting to get the enemy to surrender so we would not have to kill them.Captain Casey could not leave his commander on the ground.
They are the bravest men I have known. They are both heroes. We will carry their example and continue the mission.”
Unfortunately, all the links to Rocky Mountain News (from which he also blogged) seem to have gone dark (perhaps in the Denver Public Library archives?). Even using the Wayback Machine, nothing came up for me. (His collection of posts can be found in this book).
The 37-year-old wrote about his unit providing the Iraqi Army with gifts and toys to pass out during a Muslim holiday, in the hopes of creating good will among local residents.
“Handing out gifts is great fun, but in Iraq you always have to be alert for the possibility that the enemy will take advantage of the opportunity to turn such an event to their advantage,” Olmsted wrote Dec. 26.
Eight days later, Olmsted, a 1992 graduate of Clark University in Worcester and a 1987 graduate of St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury, died from wounds suffered when his unit was hit with small arms fire in As Sadiyah, Iraq, according to the Department of Defense.
Olmsted, of Colorado Springs, and another soldier from his unit were among the first soldiers killed in Iraq in the new year.
An account of the funeral services at Amygdala:
The wall of men dressed in pressed green uniforms – men responsible for the nation’s defense – sobbed and crumbled in the presence of the rectangular box draped in an American flag.
The burly men in leather jackets and bushy beards standing along the sides of the chapel wiped away tears as well. The parents of the man in the casket sat in the front row and held each other.
And the dead soldier’s wife simply dropped her head and cried.
“Staff Sergeant Salas,” 1st Sgt. William Schroeter barked, standing erect in the center aisle.
Salas stood up amid the hundreds in attendance and answered.
“Sergeant 1st Class Parish,” Schroeter said.
Parish bolted up and answered as well.
“Sergeant 1st Class Merriman,” Schroeter said.
“Here,” Merriman answered, standing tall.
“Major Olmsted,” Schroeter called out.
“Major Andrew Olmsted,” Schroeter called again.
“Major Andrew James Olmsted,” he said, each name echoing throughout the Soldiers’ Memorial Chapel.
Olmsted’s widow, Amanda Wilson, trembled. She would have given anything to hear him answer. One word would do. But that would be to wish for the impossible.
In front of her, Olmsted’s portrait looked back. Above the photo, there was a lone rifle with a helmet on top, emblazoned with the major’s last name. His dog tags hung limply around the rifle.
Emptiness filled the Fort Carson chapel. Wilson let out a small, mournful cry. Her husband was less than five feet away from her, separated by a flag, a casket and an eternity.
…News of the 37-year-old’s death swept through the blogsphere, where the soldier was an active writer at several sites, including one for the Rocky and one for Obsidian Wings.
He asked Hilary Bok, who runs Obsidian Wings, to post something he wrote in the event of his death. When Bok put it up on the site, it stirred so much interest that Olmsted’s father, Wes Olmsted, said it has since been translated into several languages, including Hebrew, Farsi and Russian.
“He touched a lot of people around the world,” Wes Olmsted said while stirring, not eating, his soup just prior to the funeral.
He and his wife, Nancy, had flown to Colorado on Saturday to be at Fort Carson for the service and were barely able to eat Tuesday.
Maj. Olmsted’s younger brother, Eric Olmsted, tried to string together some happy memories of the two of them growing up. He chuckled quietly at a comment his brother made last year while training at Fort Riley, Kan. Andy, talking about the intellectual heft of his family – father and brother with doctorates, mother and wife with master’s degrees – had said he was the “intellectual runt of the family.”
“I think we all know that wasn’t true,” Eric Olmsted said. “He could read before my parents even knew he could read.”
The major (“We always just called him Andy,” his mom said) was somewhat of a Renaissance man, with interests ranging from philosophy, writing, economics and ’80s music to a passionate love for the Boston Red Sox.
“He lived life to the fullest every day,” longtime friend Maj. David Willis said. “There was never a challenge he did not meet head- on. There was never anything he saw that was too hard for him to take on.”
That included Iraq.
While Olmsted would entertain discussions about the reasons for America’s involvement in Iraq, he was fully committed to trying to fix things there. In his blog postings, he talked optimistically about the impact his unit was having and his belief in doing the job well. In his final posting, he asked everyone to not politicize his death.
‘We’re all going to die’
“We’re all going to die of something,” he wrote. “I died doing a job I loved. When your time comes, I hope you are as fortunate as I was.”
But Olmsted’s wish didn’t stave off grief and regret at the chapel.
The final post:
This is an entry I would have preferred not to have published, but there are limits to what we can control in life, and apparently I have passed one of those limits. And so, like G’Kar, I must say here what I would much prefer to say in person. I want to thank hilzoy for putting it up for me. It’s not easy asking anyone to do something for you in the event of your death, and it is a testament to her quality that she didn’t hesitate to accept the charge. As with many bloggers, I have a disgustingly large ego, and so I just couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to have the last word if the need arose. Perhaps I take that further than most, I don’t know. I hope so. It’s frightening to think there are many people as neurotic as I am in the world. In any case, since I won’t get another chance to say what I think, I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity. Such as it is.
“When some people die, it’s time to be sad. But when other people die, like really evil people, or the Irish, it’s time to celebrate.”
Jimmy Bender, “Greg the Bunny”
“And maybe now it’s your turn To die kicking some ass.”
Freedom Isn’t Free, Team America
What I don’t want this to be is a chance for me, or anyone else, to be maudlin. I’m dead. That sucks, at least for me and my family and friends. But all the tears in the world aren’t going to bring me back, so I would prefer that people remember the good things about me rather than mourning my loss. (If it turns out a specific number of tears will, in fact, bring me back to life, then by all means, break out the onions.) I had a pretty good life, as I noted above. Sure, all things being equal I would have preferred to have more time, but I have no business complaining with all the good fortune I’ve enjoyed in my life. So if you’re up for that, put on a little 80s music (preferably vintage 1980-1984), grab a Coke and have a drink with me. If you have it, throw ‘Freedom Isn’t Free’ from the Team America soundtrack in; if you can’t laugh at that song, I think you need to lighten up a little. I’m dead, but if you’re reading this, you’re not, so take a moment to enjoy that happy fact.
“Our thoughts form the universe. They always matter.”
Citizen G’Kar, Babylon 5
Believe it or not, one of the things I will miss most is not being able to blog any longer. The ability to put my thoughts on (virtual) paper and put them where people can read and respond to them has been marvelous, even if most people who have read my writings haven’t agreed with them. If there is any hope for the long term success of democracy, it will be if people agree to listen to and try to understand their political opponents rather than simply seeking to crush them. While the blogosphere has its share of partisans, there are some awfully smart people making excellent arguments out there as well, and I know I have learned quite a bit since I began blogging. I flatter myself I may have made a good argument or two as well; if I didn’t, please don’t tell me. It has been a great five-plus years. I got to meet a lot of people who are way smarter than me, including such luminaries as Virginia Postrel and her husband Stephen (speaking strictly from a ‘improving the species’ perspective, it’s tragic those two don’t have kids, because they’re both scary smart.), the estimable hilzoy and Sebastian of Obsidian Wings, Jeff Goldstein and Stephen Green, the men who consistently frustrated me with their mix of wit and wisdom I could never match, and I’ve no doubt left out a number of people to whom I apologize. Bottom line: if I got the chance to meet you through blogging, I enjoyed it. I’m only sorry I couldn’t meet more of you. In particular I’d like to thank Jim Henley, who while we’ve never met has been a true comrade, whose words have taught me and whose support has been of great personal value to me. I would very much have enjoyed meeting Jim.
Blogging put me in touch with an inordinate number of smart people, an exhilarating if humbling experience. When I was young, I was smart, but the older I got, the more I realized just how dumb I was in comparison to truly smart people. But, to my credit, I think, I was at least smart enough to pay attention to the people with real brains and even occasionally learn something from them. It has been joy and a pleasure having the opportunity to do this.
“It’s not fair.”
“No. It’s not. Death never is.”
Captain John Sheridan and Dr. Stephen Franklin, Babylon 5
“They didn’t even dig him a decent grave.”
“Well, it’s not how you’re buried. It’s how you’re remembered.”
Cimarron and Wil Andersen, The Cowboys
I suppose I should speak to the circumstances of my death. It would be nice to believe that I died leading men in battle, preferably saving their lives at the cost of my own. More likely I was caught by a marksman or an IED. But if there is an afterlife, I’m telling anyone who asks that I went down surrounded by hundreds of insurgents defending a village composed solely of innocent women and children. It’ll be our little secret, ok?
From what I’ve read, Maj Olmsted wasn’t in favor of OIF; nor the Surge. The mission that took his life. However:
I do ask (not that I’m in a position to enforce this) that no one try to use my death to further their political purposes. I went to Iraq and did what I did for my reasons, not yours. My life isn’t a chit to be used to bludgeon people to silence on either side. If you think the U.S. should stay in Iraq, don’t drag me into it by claiming that somehow my death demands us staying in Iraq. If you think the U.S. ought to get out tomorrow, don’t cite my name as an example of someone’s life who was wasted by our mission in Iraq. I have my own opinions about what we should do about Iraq, but since I’m not around to expound on them I’d prefer others not try and use me as some kind of moral capital to support a position I probably didn’t support. Further, this is tough enough on my family without their having to see my picture being used in some rally or my name being cited for some political purpose. You can fight political battles without hurting my family, and I’d prefer that you did so.
On a similar note, while you’re free to think whatever you like about my life and death, if you think I wasted my life, I’ll tell you you’re wrong. We’re all going to die of something. I died doing a job I loved. When your time comes, I hope you are as fortunate as I was.
FA is an unapologetically partisan conservative, right-wing blog. However, amidst all the political din, mudslinging, and venomous stabs at the other side, today is Memorial Day. And to honor Olmsted’s memory and his final wishes, I hope anyone leaving comments will pay respects while refraining from engaging in political points.
Those who know me through my writings on the Internet over the past five-plus years probably have wondered at times about my chosen profession. While I am not a Libertarian, I certainly hold strongly individualistic beliefs. Yet I have spent my life in a profession that is not generally known for rugged individualism. Worse, I volunteered to return to active duty knowing that the choice would almost certainly lead me to Iraq. The simple explanation might be that I was simply stupid, and certainly I make no bones about having done some dumb things in my life, but I don’t think this can be chalked up to stupidity. Maybe I was inconsistent in my beliefs; there are few people who adhere religiously to the doctrines of their chosen philosophy, whatever that may be. But I don’t think that was the case in this instance either.
As passionate as I am about personal freedom, I don’t buy the claims of anarchists that humanity would be just fine without any government at all. There are too many people in the world who believe that they know best how people should live their lives, and many of them are more than willing to use force to impose those beliefs on others. A world without government simply wouldn’t last very long; as soon as it was established, strongmen would immediately spring up to establish their fiefdoms. So there is a need for government to protect the people’s rights. And one of the fundamental tools to do that is an army that can prevent outside agencies from imposing their rules on a society. A lot of people will protest that argument by noting that the people we are fighting in Iraq are unlikely to threaten the rights of the average American. That’s certainly true; while our enemies would certainly like to wreak great levels of havoc on our society, the fact is they’re not likely to succeed. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a need for an army (setting aside debates regarding whether ours is the right size at the moment). Americans are fortunate that we don’t have to worry too much about people coming to try and overthrow us, but part of the reason we don’t have to worry about that is because we have an army that is stopping anyone who would try.
Soldiers cannot have the option of opting out of missions because they don’t agree with them: that violates the social contract. The duly-elected American government decided to go to war in Iraq. (Even if you maintain President Bush was not properly elected, Congress voted for war as well.) As a soldier, I have a duty to obey the orders of the President of the United States as long as they are Constitutional. I can no more opt out of missions I disagree with than I can ignore laws I think are improper. I do not consider it a violation of my individual rights to have gone to Iraq on orders because I raised my right hand and volunteered to join the army. Whether or not this mission was a good one, my participation in it was an affirmation of something I consider quite necessary to society. So if nothing else, I gave my life for a pretty important principle; I can (if you’ll pardon the pun) live with that.
“It’s all so brief, isn’t it? A typical human lifespan is almost a hundred years. But it’s barely a second compared to what’s out there. It wouldn’t be so bad if life didn’t take so long to figure out. Seems you just start to get it right, and then…it’s over.”
Dr. Stephen Franklin, Babylon 5
…I write this in part, admittedly, because I would like to think that there’s at least a little something out there to remember me by. Granted, this site will eventually vanish, being ephemeral in a very real sense of the word, but at least for a time it can serve as a tiny record of my contributions to the world. But on a larger scale, for those who knew me well enough to be saddened by my death, especially for those who haven’t known anyone else lost to this war, perhaps my death can serve as a small reminder of the costs of war. Regardless of the merits of this war, or of any war, I think that many of us in America have forgotten that war means death and suffering in wholesale lots. A decision that for most of us in America was academic, whether or not to go to war in Iraq, had very real consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. Yet I was as guilty as anyone of minimizing those very real consequences in lieu of a cold discussion of theoretical merits of war and peace. Now I’m facing some very real consequences of that decision; who says life doesn’t have a sense of humor?
But for those who knew me and feel this pain, I think it’s a good thing to realize that this pain has been felt by thousands and thousands (probably millions, actually) of other people all over the world. That is part of the cost of war, any war, no matter how justified. If everyone who feels this pain keeps that in mind the next time we have to decide whether or not war is a good idea, perhaps it will help us to make a more informed decision. Because it is pretty clear that the average American would not have supported the Iraq War had they known the costs going in. I am far too cynical to believe that any future debate over war will be any less vitriolic or emotional, but perhaps a few more people will realize just what those costs can be the next time.
This may be a contradiction of my above call to keep politics out of my death, but I hope not. Sometimes going to war is the right idea. I think we’ve drawn that line too far in the direction of war rather than peace, but I’m a soldier and I know that sometimes you have to fight if you’re to hold onto what you hold dear. But in making that decision, I believe we understate the costs of war; when we make the decision to fight, we make the decision to kill, and that means lives and families destroyed. Mine now falls into that category; the next time the question of war or peace comes up, if you knew me at least you can understand a bit more just what it is you’re deciding to do, and whether or not those costs are worth it.
Major Olmsted’s closing words, his final thoughts, he reserved for his beloved wife:
This is the hardest part. While I certainly have no desire to die, at this point I no longer have any worries. That is not true of the woman who made my life something to enjoy rather than something merely to survive. She put up with all of my faults, and they are myriad, she endured separations again and again…I cannot imagine being more fortunate in love than I have been with Amanda. Now she has to go on without me, and while a cynic might observe she’s better off, I know that this is a terrible burden I have placed on her, and I would give almost anything if she would not have to bear it. It seems that is not an option. I cannot imagine anything more painful than that, and if there is an afterlife, this is a pain I’ll bear forever.
I wasn’t the greatest husband. I could have done so much more, a realization that, as it so often does, comes too late to matter. But I cherished every day I was married to Amanda. When everything else in my life seemed dark, she was always there to light the darkness. It is difficult to imagine my life being worth living without her having been in it. I hope and pray that she goes on without me and enjoys her life as much as she deserves. I can think of no one more deserving of happiness than her.
“I will see you again, in the place where no shadows fall.”
Ambassador Delenn, Babylon 5
I don’t know if there is an afterlife; I tend to doubt it, to be perfectly honest. But if there is any way possible, Amanda, then I will live up to Delenn’s words, somehow, some way. I love you.
His friend, Lt. Col. Matthew Goodman, remembered his last meal with Olmsted before he shipped off. Goodman could barely tell the story at the funeral without his voice hitching.
“As we were leaving, I asked if he was good to go and if he needed anything,” Goodman said. “And I’ll never forget, as he put on his jacket and his signature fedora hat, he said the only thing he was going to worry about was missing his wife, Amanda.”
A widow’s struggle
Wilson dropped her head again, shoulders hunched forward as if they carried a giant weight. All week, the widow had been struggling with the loss. Her mother had come last week to help, but by Tuesday, Wilson still looked ashen and shell-shocked.
As everyone in the chapel stood as a row of soldiers outside fired a volley of shots and a bugler played Taps, the finality of what was happening settled hard.
The flag was lifted from the casket and was folded slowly, carefully and precisely – never to be unfolded again.
Maj. Gen. Mark Graham got on one knee and whispered words meant only for Wilson. He saluted her slowly. He then did the same for Olmsted’s mother. Neither held her composure. Only the sobbing of uniformed men broke the stillness. Gov. Bill Ritter watched from a pew, stone-faced.
Then, it was time to say goodbye.
Wilson walked up to the casket and, clutching the flag, draped herself over it. She wept openly. She was unsteady on her feet, and a casualty assistance officer helped her exit the chapel – her departure followed by silence.
Over twelve years have since past.
Maj Olmsted’s final post should be read in its entirety. Please take a look, for yourself.
There are many links on Obsidian Wings if you wish to read more articles, blogposts, and comments about Andrew Olmsted.
Have a reflective Memorial Day.
“God must have a special place for soldiers”
A former fetus, the “wordsmith from nantucket” was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1968. Adopted at birth, wordsmith grew up a military brat. He achieved his B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles (graduating in the top 97% of his class), where he also competed rings for the UCLA mens gymnastics team. The events of 9/11 woke him from his political slumber and malaise. Currently a personal trainer and gymnastics coach.
The wordsmith has never been to Nantucket.